The world of elite professional sports is ever changing. The combination of increased financial investment, technological innovation, growing markets and shrinking attention spans are transforming how we not only view professional sports, but also how the assets – the athletes themselves – are managed. Make no mistake about it, the athletes are the stars of the show. A team wins or loses primarily based on the talent and experience they put on the field or court of play. Certainly coaching, tactics and team chemistry play a role in the outcome, but as a good friend of mine says, “If you don’t have the horses, you aren’t going to be in the rodeo!”
In the NFL, the manner in which the athletes are managed in the off-season is of significant concern, particularly amongst those who are in charge of their physical preparation. The NFL season is relatively short as compared with other professional sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer. The sheer brutality of the sport necessitates that only 16 regular season games be played each year. If you manage to go deep in the post-season, your season can be extended. However, repeating as Super Bowl champion is difficult because of the wear-and-tear experienced by the players. Yet, the off-season is still rather long with many opportunities to rest, recover, regenerate and rebuild.
However, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for the players has limited what once was a plentiful off-season training period to a rather small window of opportunity to physically prepare the players for the demands of both training camp and the regular season. What was once 16 weeks of physical preparation has been shrunken down to five weeks of “no-huddle, hurry-up” training. Strength and Conditioning coaches are caught between a rock and a hard place because, on the one hand, they have to get as much training as possible completed in a short amount of time, but they cannot rush the progression of work for fear of injuring players – particularly those players that may not be prepared for full throttle training. Essentially, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t under the current CBA off-season arrangement.
On either end of the nine-week mandatory training period (five weeks of strength and conditioning work plus four weeks of team practice) players are not required to do anything. Players may truly believe that doing very little activity during these periods will preserve their health and extend their careers. This can be true of the players that have maintained their fitness in the voluntary training periods. A well-planned and periodized program can more than take advantage of the time off to build up a player gradually for the mandatory periods. Unloading can follow the end of Week Nine of mandatory training window, with a rebuilding block of 3-4 weeks leading up to the pre-season training camp.
Unfortunately, player fitness is not always where it should be, and Strength & Conditioning coaches must adjust their progressions to the lowest common denominator or heavily individualize their programming – which is logistically difficult given the number of players, staffing limitations and time constraints. If you push too hard, too quickly, injuries are a very possible outcome. If you do not push hard enough, players may not be able to withstand the demands of team practice by Week Six of the mandatory period, also resulting in injuries. It is a difficult proposition, but there are some options for getting the most out of your training sessions in such a relatively short period of time. Provided below are some key recommendations for this type of scenario.
- Emphasize quality acceleration work for all players. While others may argue that the weight room will develop the foundation for players, during these short training periods, acceleration should be the primary focus. The game of football involves quick, accelerative movements at every position. Quality acceleration work over 10, 20 and 30 yards not only address the specifics of the movements required by players, but also place a tremendous stress on the nervous system as an intense, whole body activity. The benefit provided by high quality accelerations on a time-per-repetition basis far outweighs anything that can be accomplished in the weight room. Add into the mix a variety of start positions, med-ball throws or sled-pulls and you also have the ability to integrate strength and power work into your acceleration workout. Even with adequately long recovery periods between reps, you will be getting significantly greater bang for your training buck on the field focusing on acceleration work. And, if you include adequate volumes of quality acceleration work, you can have shorter lower body lifting periods because of the contribution of sprinting to lower body strength and power development. Those teams that do not sprint will have to make up for that oversight by adding more lower body work in the weight room.
- Order on-field work before lifting if at all possible. It is always best to sprint before you lift. The reasons are numerous, but the best reason is to prioritize your energy for the most valued training elements. As mentioned previously, sprinting and movement on the field should be considered the foundation upon which all other abilities are built. A famous coach once said, “You are only as fast as the slowest teammate on the field.” Thus, your resources should be directed at improving speed first. I would also argue that the sprinting done prior to lifting enhances nervous system activation, without placing too much fatigue on the peripheral system used in lifting. I have had many a sprinter have a good training session on the track, only to also have a spectacular day in the weight room immediately after. The same could not be said of the reverse order. In fact, I have even seen athletes incur muscle injuries when trying to sprint after a heavy lifting session. Sprinting is cyclical with very short force application durations and skillful recruitment patterns, while lifting is acyclical with longer durations of muscle tension and more raw recruitment patterns. It is always advisable to complete the higher speed, complex recruitment activities first in you order of training, with lower order activities following.
- Limit time spent in the “medium” zone. I have heard the argument made that because football practice has a good deal of work in the medium zone (i.e. heavy fatigue, lactic acid formation), a large proportion of training preceding training camps or football practice sessions must aim to achieve these adaptations and prepare the players for the rigors of practice. While I agree that players need to be exposed to the levels of fatigue they will experience in practice sessions, this type of work cannot dominate your conditioning sessions. The middle zone fatigue can bleed into other sessions and negatively impact the quality of speed, power and strength work. I would rather opt for higher volumes of low intensity tempo running, developing the aerobic system to help players buffer the negative effects of any medium zone work the players will encounter in practices or games. There is also a reduced probability of injury and residual muscle soreness during tempo workouts as opposed to medium zone work. If you choose to go ahead with medium zone work – what I would characterize as special endurance work – I suggest that it be placed at the end of a workout day, or at the end of the workout week to ensure other work isn’t blunted by fatigue and to allow athletes to recover from the demands of such sessions.
- Always finish sessions with cyclical, circulatory work. Wherever possible, particularly after lifting workouts, try to incorporate a few easy runs at 60-70% of your best time over a given distance to finish a workout session. Cyclical work helps to reset muscle tone and re-pattern for future running efforts. Weightlifting often involves high levels of muscle tension and co-contraction around joints in order to stabilize these structures. High-speed running involves a complex mixture of very quick contractions and relaxations that must be maintained as a primary movement pattern. Additionally, cyclical work can also help initiate recovery mechanisms following high-intensity non-circulatory work. Heavy lifting workouts should never terminate with a simple walk to the showers. Hasten the recovery process wherever you can.
- Even small volumes of tempo work can be cumulative. Wherever you can, small, frequent doses of tempo running can be integrated throughout a training week to accumulate adequate volumes of aerobic work to assist with general conditioning and active recovery. I have even told coaches to classify all tempo work as “recovery” work when speaking to the players. While optimal individual tempo sessions in the off-season may be as high as 1200-1400 yards for linemen and 1800-2200 yards for skill players, these types of sessions may not be possible within the time constraints of the off-season mandatory training period. Smaller doses of tempo volume can be accumulated – when implemented consistently – to build aerobic and general fitness abilities. There may only be time and energy at the end of a training session for 600 yards of tempo for linemen and 1000 yards for skill players, but it is worth the effort to put in the work, even for the purpose of recovery.
- Don’t rush in the effort to get more volume inserted. Every training element has a point of diminishing returns, and beyond that point, training only produces fatigue. And remember – fatigue is not always a precursor to positive adaptation. Sometimes, fatigue is simply a side effect of poor training choices or too much training in one zone. We can all agree that five weeks is not an adequate time to build a speed, strength and fitness foundation for a season. However, rushing in an effort to give the impression that you are doing the best you can is not the answer. The illusion of good training is a far different picture than actual good training. Make your training choices based on the goals and objectives set out by the team and performance staff. If you need to get faster and stronger, exercise prescriptions and recovery times must reflect those goals. If you are simply preparing athletes for the insanity of training camp, you may be missing the point. Training camp is an aberration and not a true reflection of what makes a team great on game day. You must progressively expose the players to high magnitudes of stress – not high volumes of stress – in order to make them perform better, but also be more resistant to injury.
Decisions at this time of year must be based on common sense and good science, not fear. The constraints of the CBA have made training choices much more complex for a lot of coaches, but in my mind it has made it much simpler. With a smaller window and finite sessions, it becomes very clear what you need to do in that period. The challenge will be to integrate players with varying levels of fitness and preparedness into a cohesive training group that can make reasonable gains in the time permitted. I think it is reasonable to communicate your goals to the players and get them on board with a common-sense plan to prepare them not just for OTA’s, but also pre-season training camp and the regular season. The five weeks that you prepare in the off-season should be compatible with the philosophy you apply for in-season training, as it is a similar scenario of identifying priorities and administering appropriate doses of work in a finite energy and time window. There will also be a significant recovery component that is part of your in-season plan. The coaches that are best able to identify their goals, abilities and operating constraints from the outset will be best be prepared for these non-optimal scenarios that have become the norm for professional sports.